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Mystery and darkness, profound and subtle – Tao and Cloud of Unknowing?

After reading the most recent post here, Richard over at Buddhism Now sent me a piece of Zen Grafffiti that he said he thought I’d like.

We are all contemporaries of beginningless time, yet we run in fear of

What a great way to express so many concepts in so few words. I’m taking the “we” to extend in all directions in time and space and the “beginningless time” to be one of those bare statements, seeming to be an oxymoron but not, that pushes our levels of thinking even deeper into nondualistic ground..

I’m tempted to jump ahead to some “ground of being” readings and comparisons between Medieval mysticism and the new physics that would fit well with this quote, but I will restrain myself. Best we become a little more grounded first in the thoughts of these epoch-changing years from 600 to 300 BCE.

Since Zen, many say, fuses many concepts of Taoism with Buddhism, perhaps Richard’s gift of that Zen graffiti can be an introduction to more of the Buddhist and Taoist writings of that time

Here are two that I chose for In the Same Breathboth seminal works in their own traditions.

Tao Te Ching – Stephen Mitchell, trans.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

In reading this first of 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, of the one question that comes to my mind is, “What is this darkness and how can it be the gateway to understanding?”

It is often helpful when reading English translations of poetic writing from a different time and culture to look at other translations to see if the meaning becomes clear by seeing how severl people have expressed something.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated in to many languages and someone has taken the time to post the names of translators in 26 languages, including 112 in English, with links to their translations. Here are the final paragraphs of Chapter One from two of them.

Tao Te Ching – D.C. Lau

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery.

Tao Te Ching – Hua Ching Ni

Nothingness and Beingness and other conceptual activity of the mind all come from the same indescribable subtle Originalness.
The Way is the unfoldment of such subtle reality.
Having reached the subtlety of the universe,
one may see the ultimate subtlety,
the Gate of All Wonders.

Tao Te Ching – Bram den Hond

These two spring from the same source.
They have different names; yet they are called the same.
That which is even more profound than the profound
The gateway to all mystery.

Darkness, mystery, subtle, profound.

Four ways of describing where one must go to attempt to understand that which is not able to be understood.

And perhaps – to do what we said we weren’t going to do yet and jump ahead to writings of the Medieval mystics – these are also the same methods necessary to begin to “beat against the Cloud of Unknowing” described by an anonymous Christian European mystic of 1375 in a slim book of instructions to new monks.

But to understand how the mystical, spiritual landscape of the 14th Century was formed in Europe, we have many more paths to travel.

A closer look at Buddhism during the Axial Age when next we meet.
– Thanks to Christine Tobias for the new art on top, one of many from “In the Same Breath.”


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Humanity’s beginnings – even if Chuang Tzu would call them beginningless – of a belief in One Spirit

Anyone interested in how humanity’s understanding of itself and its universe developed is bound to be fascinated by what happened between 600 and 300 BCE.


- Jane Gaunt

In all the parts of the world from which we have historical records, people were moving from a belief in many gods to a belief in One Spirit, and then to the concept that this One Spirit lived in mysterious but profound unity with all of Creation.

Those 300 years of spiritual and philosophical awakening are part of the larger Axial Age, which spanned 200 to 800 BCE. During that time humanity reached a level of self-awareness and linguistic ability that enabled significant leaps to take place.

We’ve  looked at a few writings from those times, now let’s look at more, one from Buddhism and one from Judaism. Notice that the form of writing between the two is stunningly different because each reflects the tradition from which it came. It seems to me, however,  the thoughts being expressed are strikingly similar.

Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha

The True Master

He is calm.
In him the seed of renewin
g life
Has been consumed.
He has conquered all the inner worlds.

With dispassionate eye
He sees everywhere
The falling and the uprising.

And with great gladness
He knows that he has finished.
He has woken from his sleep.

And the way he has taken
Is hidden from men [and women],
Even from spirits and gods,
By virtue of his purity.

In him there is no yesterday,
No tomorrow,
No today….

He has come to the end of the way,
Over the river of his many lives,
His many deaths.

Beyond the sorrow of hell,
Beyond the great joy of heaven,
By virtue of his purity.

He has come to the end of the way

All that he had to do, he has done.

And now he is one.

Because Buddhism doesn’t include a Creator Spirit in the same sense that many other religions or philosophies do, it is sometimes hard to figure out how to include Buddhist thought in a discussion such as this. However, it’s impossible to miss the message of unity in this passage.

This translation by Thomas Byrom, a brilliant English mystic and educator I had the honor to know before his death in 1991, uses the master’s indifference to such practical opposites such as the “sorrow of hell” and the “joy of heaven” to show unity.

But the lyrical yet pithy language also evokes Buddhist teaching in its reference to seeing  both falling and rising everywhere. Additional passages from the Dhammapada can be found in In the Same Breath.

Byrom also translated the Hindu Ashtavakra Gita, written in the 8th or 14th Century, which we will look at in more detail when we are explore what was happening in Eastern religions at time when Western thought was coming even more dualistic. Byrom’s comments on the Ashtavakra Gita will also be part of our look at the 20th and 21st Century renaissance of our waning and waxing thread of unity.

Turning to Judaism, we see the description in Exodus, thought to have been written in about 650 BCE, regarding the events that took place nearly a millenium earlier when the Jews fled Egypt for what was to become Israel. Biblical scholars believe Exodus was written by several authors over the centuries until it was solidified during Axial Age to what we have today.

Exodus 3: 13-15

Then Moses said to God, “I am to go then, to the sons [and daughters] of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?”

And God said to Moses,

“I Am who I Am. You must say to the [children] of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’

“This is my name for all time; by this name I shall be invoked for all generations to come.”

The key words here are “I am who I am,” or as some translations have it, “I am who am,” which is a more accurate translation of the Latin, “Ego sum qui sum.” However, just as the English came from the Latin, the Latin came from the Greek, and the Greek from a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic! Likewise, the English translations that we have of ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist scriptures and canons came mostly from the original Chinese and Sanskrit.

I_ am

- Christine Tobias

Regarding Exodus, there is much discussion over just what God meant in his answer to Moses, or to those who don’t believe that the bible was divinely inspired, what the writers in ancient Israel were trying to imply by their choice of words.

Some say that Moses was really asking what he should tell the Jews to get them to follow him out of Egypt, cling to their God and stay away from all the other gods being worshipped at the time.

In modern lingo, then the answer meant, “I am the only God. All those others are part of me. Stick with me and you’ll be fine. Just get them out of Egypt!”

Many mainline Christian theologians stick with interpret those words as meaning that God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who had no creator, is above and separate from everything, and thus is transcendent.

But looking at it with our lens of immanence, it seems that these powerful words could also mean that at least some in ancient Judaism believed that nothing exists outside of God and thus Spirit and Creation must be One.

The Hebrew phrase is Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is literally translated as “I shall be who I shall be,” raises more questions than it answers. Some say it indicates that God is still becoming and his work isn’t finished. Others look to Aramaic-speaking Assyrians would translate those words today.

The translation: “I am the beginning I am.”

Wow! Do you suppose that Chuang Tzu just happened to drop in for lunch and a chat that day?

More about the marvelous times of 600 to 300 BCE when next we meet.

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Writings on Unity of Spirit and Creation ebb, flow and spiral back from 600 BCE to today

The ebb and flow of writings since ancient times on the unity of Spirit and Creation show remarkable patterns. The most interesting is the spiral that takes us from the beginning in 600 BCE, through ups and downs, fertile flowerings and bleak deserts, to the 20th and 21st Centuries, when the writings flourish again and are more like the earliest ones than any that came between.

Some say we are in the new “Axial Age” of spiritual discoveries, but this time with everyday people making those discoveries and tying them to everything from popular music to the new physics to the interconnectedness of the Internet.

We will spend time in future posts filling in the details of the ups and downs and the spiral that is still going strong, but first it’s helpful to pull some examples from each of the the five most fruitful periods of time. This is how I broke them up in writing In the Same Breath, with illustrations by Christine Tobias. If you have other historical categories or favorite writings, I’d love to hear about them.


- Christine Tobias

There are are 52 writings in Same Breath, one for each week; here are some from each of the five time periods.

Beginningless Beginnings – 600 to 300 BCE

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name,
I call it the Tao.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, trans. Stephen Mitchell, about 500 BCE

Bread, Wine and a Billion Arms – 200 BCE to 200 CE

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning,
Through him all things came to be,
Not one thing had its being but through him.

John 1:1–5, The Jerusalem Bible, about 100 CE

Mystical Aha! Moments – 850 to 1600

I gazed upon [al-Lah] with the eye of truth and said to Him: “Who is this?”
He said, “This is neither I nor other than I. There is no God but I.”
Then he changed me out of my identity into His Selfhood…
Then I communed with Him with the tongue of His Face, saying:
“How fared it with me with Thee?” He said, “I am through Thee, there is no god but Thou.”

Abu Yazid Bistami, Sufi mystic, 804- 874

A Spiral Back to Flying Sparks – 1900 to 1999

When we enter the unknown
of our houses,
go inside the given up dark
and sheltering walls alone
and turn out the lamps
we fall bone to bone in bed.

Neighbors, the old woman who knows you
turns over in me
and I wake up
in another country. There’s no more
north and south.
Asleep, we pass through one another
like blowing snow,
all of us,

“Our Houses,” from Seeing Through the Sun, 1985, by Linda Hogan,
Native American poet and author

There is no such thing as seeking God, for there is nothing in which He could not be found.

Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher, 1878 – 1965

Seeking Eden in the Chaos – 1999 – today

I believe that the Messiah is not a person, outside of us, but is a noble state of mind possible in each and every one of us, a state of mind which must be attained, too often through pain.

Storm of Terror, by June Leavitt, 2002

What was going on during all this time?

Here’s the capsule version – many more details to come in future posts.

First there was a flurry of juicy, prolific writing in all parts of the inhabited world, stretching almost nonstop for more than a millennium starting in 600 BCE.

Then wars and invasions in Europe made sheer survival take precedence over spiritual growth, at least in the West, for 600 years until the emergence of Christian, Jewish and Sufi mystics in the 9th Century. The thread was more subdued this time, especially among Christian mystics. Eden had been lost. Those in exile were now unable to completely embrace the unity that was once so natural. Even so, a few were determined to try to reach the God who had once walked by humanity’s side, but had now been exiled by the theologians to the heavens.

After a mere 600 years, however, the mysticism that flowered in Christianity was stopped in its tracks by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-Reformation, neither of which had any tolerance for mystical experiences or talk of other than a transcendent, separate God. The Enlightenment, for all its wonderful exploration of science and


- Christine Tobias

rational behavior, was also inhospitable soil for mysticism.  Kabbalah, however, kept the mystical thread going in Judaism, as did Sufism in Islam.

Meanwhile, the Eastern religions of Taoism and Hinduism were well into their 26th century of seeing Spirit and Creation as One; Buddhism had held up a mirror to the illusion of reality and Eastern Orthodox Christianity had found a way to continue to accept and even nourish mysticism.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th to the 20th Century, however, that writing of this unity began to appear again broadly in the West, often influenced by Eastern thought, but also at times quite home-grown.

We’ll explore how this came to be and take a look at Thomas Merton‘s 20th century rendition of the 300 BCE writings of Chuang Tzu, for whom this blog is named, when next we meet.

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